On a scale of get-me-out-of-here white and I’m-going-to-be-ill green I’m presenting somewhere in the middle. It’s no surprise really, because I’m on the floor of a tiny tin can, 1500 metres up in the air and strapped to my back is a man with a proven track record of hurling himself out of planes. With each clip locking us together capable of lifting a truck, escape is unlikely. “It’ll either be the longest or the shortest 30 seconds of your life,” Sam, my human sinker, chuckles into my ear. “Now,” he says, “do you remember the banana position?”
On the ground, before we hurtle along the tarmac and rattle into the thick Northern Territory air, we practise curling our legs under our torsos and tilting heads towards the sky. All while wearing a pair of baggy red pants over our own – insurance perhaps, in case we make a mess in the first set. Once our banana poses – the stance we’re to hold seconds before tumbling from the plane – pass Sam’s test, a baby-faced senior pilot unshackles the plane from its parking spot at Uluru Airport and we were on our way.
At the halfway mark the mugginess dissipates and the cool air wicks away the worst of the nerves, though my mouth still feels as parched as the desert. From here Uluru, taller than the highest skyscraper in the Southern Hemisphere, rests on the rusted soil like a crumpled blanket. In the distance the boulders of Kata Tjuta erupt from the earth but it’s the ridges snaking like veins across the skin of the land that are the most striking.
Over the hammering engine Sam explains that more than 300 million years ago salt water pooled over this part of Oz, depositing coral and marine fossils into layers of soil. It’s the type of wet that explorer Captain Charles Sturt went searching for when he set off from Adelaide back in 1844, carting a whaleboat and 200 sheep on his now infamous expedition – a voyage that started millions of years too late. The dunes we see from our little plane have existed this way for the past 30,000 years, with just their crests wandering in the desert.
Our pilot, also sporting a parachute “just in case”, twirls up higher and higher. Perspective disappears. The scene below appears like a page from a map with the horizon smudging into pale blue haze. I begin to see why Sam repeats this trip time and again. Well, that and the freefall, he says. With 5000 jumps on his tally, a newbie would have to dive every day for the next 13.5 years to clock up the same lofty number.
At 3600 metres we reach altitude – high enough to plummet for 30 seconds before a parachute sprouts open and slows us to a graceful descent. Flying this high, Uluru looks unnaturally small. I’m about ready for a closer look.